What is a living tradition? It begins with a great idea by one person about how to build something better. If the person builds it and it resonates with others, the others repeat it in the locality where it originated. If it is good enough, others throughout the region will notice and will say "we love this, and want to adopt this into our family of regional traditions." This illustrates how living traditions have nothing to do with the history books, but are instead driven by those things that are most worthy of love.
Put another way, a living tradition begins as an insight by one person. If they are committed enough and inspiring enough, then they can convert that insight into a cause that is shared by others. If that cause is strong enough that it spreads beyond the original hive within which it was cultivated to the culture at large, it becomes a movement. If the movement is vibrant enough that it spreads to the next generation, then it achieves the highest standards of ideas that spread, which is the living tradition.
Unfortunately, most architectural living traditions died in the early years of the 20th century, so most people today can't conceive of building places and buildings within a living tradition.
Living traditions died in part due to specialization, as we each became valuable enough at our jobs that we all became specialists and could afford to buy all our daily needs from other specialists. Unfortunately, that meant that we were no longer able to say to the others "that's not good enough" because they were the experts in what they did, and we were not.
Living traditions also died by architectural licensing, which with one stroke of the pen took half of the creation of the town (the commercial part) out of the hands of the townspeople and put it into the hands of the architects (of which I am one.)
It should be noted that there is as much similarity between a living tradition and a dead tradition as there is between a living creature and a fossil. The living creature and the fossil might have similar forms (although not in this illustration,) but one is alive and the other is not. We might re-create the past form of a tradition that once lived, but that doesn't mean that we have created something that can take on a life of its own and spread without us.
This is one of 6 posts that contain my presentation to the joint INTBAU-Notre Dame conference in London, Architecture in the Age of Austerity, on April 30, 2012.
Here are the posts:
Post 3 (this one)
Interesting note on licensing. The man who designed the Arlington Memorial Bridge, for years worked for MM&W, in the living tradition of classicism; who never compromised with the industrialization of architecture....never got his license. His name was Jon Vegessi, and strongly disagreed with the whole idea of licensing...in fact, he was insulted by it! Imagine. :-)